For someone who’s always wanted to find out how a major spearfishing tournament takes place, the Omer 5th Annual Hatteras Blue Water Open is a pretty good place to start.
The day before the start of competition and after the athletes’ and boat captains’ briefings, tournament organizer Mark Laboccetta hooked me up with Captain John Olney, whose 42-foot custom sportfishing boat “Runaway” would play host to five top-tier spearfishermen from California as well as one wet-behind-the-ears (as far as spearfishing is concerned) journalist on the first day of competition.
The contestants I hung out with on Day 1 of the tournament may have varied in age, but all were accomplished athletes in this sport, ranging from Larry Schuldt of Ukiah, CA, who retired from serious international competition about six years ago but still comes back to Hatteras every year, to multiple-time world champion Billl Ernst of Malibu, to last year’s Hatteras champ Brandon Wahlers – a college student – to Richard Balta and Ralph Tiemann.
When I asked Schuldt at one point while he rested in between dives why he keeps coming back to Hatteras, he said it was because “you can’t get this [kind of competition] at home.”
On Friday, July 28, my cellphone alarm chirped me awake at 5:30am, and I could hear the wind rustling the leaves outside my tent in the National Park Service’s campsite. Located in the neighboring village of Frisco, the campsite has a commanding view of the ocean, which on this day was churning with small whitecaps.
I arrived at the Teach’s Landing Marina in Hatteras Village a little after 6am, and once everyone had gotten their gear aboard and signed the requisite “I-promise-not-to-sue -you-if-a-shark-bites-my-family-jewels-off” liability forms, Runaway’s mate Nathan – a recent English-major graduate of East Carolina University – cast off the lines and Captain John got us under way.
On the way out, the five divers stretched out on the bunks in Runaway’s cabin and closed their eyes, trying to grab an extra hour of sleep during the transit out to the Gulf Stream. Once we cleared the lee side of Hatteras Island and moved into the open ocean, Runaway began to rise and fall into the wind, shrugging off the waves with aplomb.
About an hour and a half later, we arrived at the site of the wreck of the British Splendour, which was sunk April 7, 1942, by a German U-boat. Her hull rests in 100 feet of water, and is either a home or stopping point for Amberjacks, Spadefish, Baitfish, Barracudas, as well as African Pompano, Cobias and sharks that cruise the water about midway between the wreck and the surface.
The five men had started suiting up a little while before we arrived over the Splendour. Once we got there, Runaway’s capable mate Nathan sprang into action, helping the divers get their gear ready, tossing their floats over the side and holding their spearguns until they had slipped over the side.
I had brought my gear — full-length skinsuit, 1.5-mm long-sleeve shortie wetsuit, mask, snorkel and long as well as short fins — with me, with the intention of floating and following the divers along the surface, taking pictures with my new handy-dandy underwater digital camera as they dove and came back up. But the camera turned out to be not-so-dandy and even-less-handy, with the (what I thought was a fully charged) battery somehow inexplicably draining itself of power in about five minutes.
Once we had arrived at the wreck, I did actually suit up, but one more look out at the three- to five-foot seas and 12- to 17-knot winds, and I knew the conditions were beyond my comfort level.
I may be a chicken, but at least I’m a PROUD chicken!
Probably the best thing about this group of guys – who ranged in age from college student to pending retiree – was that all of them sincerely supported my decision to stay aboard; no stupid macho challenges anywhere.
Back to the diving. Runaway’s captain and mate swiftly got into the rhythm of helping the divers get themselves and their gear into the water, then cruising down-current, keeping an eye on their floats as well as for the signal of a raised speargun out of the water that denoted their wanting to be picked up, either because the 5-knot current had pushed them past the wreck, or because they had speared a fish. Captain John would then slowly and expertly back Runaway up as we approached the diver in the water. Nathan would grab the unloaded speargun and reel in the float line while the diver pulled himself and his catch aboard through the “tuna door” at the rear starboard edge of the boat.
While many of the contestants I spoke to – both on and off the water – groused about having to tow a float, this is one example of where tournament organizer Mark Laboccetta’s emphasis on safety really made sense, given the conditions. The bright orange or yellow floats made it much easier for Captain John and Nathan to keep an eye on the divers’ locations in the rolling waves and windy conditions of the Gulf Stream. And the conditions were without a doubt challenging, where it seemed like every other second that a diver was in the water, he was clearing his snorkel of seawater.
For most of the morning, it looked like age and experience was going to trump youth, with Bill Ernst landing a cobia as well as a mahi mahi, the latter of which he said swam right by him not too soon after he re-entered the water.
“As the old saying goes, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’” he said with a smile.
Ernst also commented that many of the fish were “skittish,” possibly due to the serious diving and spearing done by him, Mark Laboccetta, Sherie Daye and Terry Maas the week before while filming several episodes for a new spearfishing program to air in January 2007 on the digital cable-only “Outdoor Channel.”
As Ernst rested on the boat between drift-swims, I admired his hand-made speargun with the titanium barrel and wooden handle.
After a few more drift-dives over the British Splendour, the divers elected to move their hunt to the wreck site of the Dixie Arrow, which was also sunk by a German U-boat in 1942.
Once there, Larry Schuldt speared himself a nice 28.7-pound Pompano, and Ernst landed a small Pompano that had a chunk of tail missing from the bite of a hungry shark looking for an easy meal.
But it was the second-to-last drift dive for Balta and Wahlers that really made the day memorable. Balta saw a good-sized Pompano around 50-60 feet down and went for it. The spear bit deep, and the fish dove to the bottom and engaged Balta in a furious tug-of-war, to the point where Balta borrowed Wahlers’ speargun and dove down to the bottom to deliver the coup de gras.
When Nathan pulled the fish in through the tuna door, everyone on board made some serious oohs and aahhs about the Pompano’s size, which had to be at least seven inches thick and a good meter long. When it was weighed ashore, the Pompano came in at 43.0 pounds, just under tournament organizer Mark Laboccetta’s world record of 43.6 pounds.
Wahlers so far had come up empty, so Capt. John dropped him and Balta off up-current for one last uneventful drift over the Dixie Arrow.
(Wahlers would come roaring back on Day 3, though, finishing fifth overall with a 28.8-lb Amberjack, a 22.5-lb Pompano and a 29.1-lb Cobia, despite tangling with a bull shark that left him unhurt.)
Once everyone was aboard, you had to grab ahold of something tied down, because Captain John opened up Runaway’s throttle; her bow lifted and her stern dug into the water as she surged to 22 knots, running before the wind and rolling down the fronts of waves to make sure we got back to the dock before the 5pm weigh-in deadline.
With southwest winds blowing 15 to 20 knots and 4- to 6-foot seas, Day 2 competition was canceled. And with Day 3′s conditions looking to be not much better than Day 1, I decided to stay ashore and do the Hatteras tourist thing, seeing as this was an area I’ve never visited before.
Overall, it was great fun for me to talk to a group of athletes serious about their sport over the course of the three-day tournament. Big thanks to Omer‘s Mark Laboccetta for arranging my passage aboard the Runaway, and Captain John Olney for a great day aboard his wonderful vessel.
For more info about spearfishing or regular sportfishing aboard Runaway, contact Capt. John Olney at cell 252-475-0999 or home 252-986-2138 or check out his web site at http://www.wefishobx.com.
You can see the final results of the Competition at the OMER Website.